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Joyner-Kersee Braces for Biggest Challenge

Jackie Joyner-Kersee was standing on the playground of a parochial grade school near Mission Viejo last week. She was watching a precocious, athletic 7-year-old do twists and turns on a jungle gym during recess.

The third-grader, Mary Ruth Joyner, is Joyner-Kersee’s niece. As Joyner-Kersee watched the little tumbler, she said, “I got tears in my eyes. I couldn’t help it. In all the time that I knew Florence, it seemed like she always had kids around her. Nieces and nephews and godchildren. It seemed like Florence helped raise so many other people’s kids. And now she’s not here to raise her own daughter.”

On Wednesday night in Chicago, Joyner-Kersee will do something that might be harder than anything she has ever done in her life.

Harder than winning Olympic medals. Joyner-Kersee has six of those, three of them gold. Harder than playing basketball. She was on an Illinois state girls’ championship team, and after her track career played in the ABL, one of the women’s pro leagues.

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But Wednesday night in Chicago, Joyner-Kersee will stand at a podium and accept the lifetime achievement award at the ARETE Awards for Courage in Sports. Joyner-Kersee will be accepting this award for her late sister-in-law, Florence Griffith Joyner, or FloJo as most of the world knew her.

“The word ‘Arete’ is Greek and has its origins in the belief that excellence is as much about the quality of effort and manner of one’s striving as about achieving victory,” says a press release about the award and Joyner-Kersee thinks that no one deserves this honor more than FloJo.

And it won’t only be about FloJo’s track and field accomplishments that Joyner-Kersee will be thinking Wednesday. It won’t only be about world records or Olympic medals. It won’t only be about FloJo’s love of bright and shiny running suits and fingernails. It won’t only be about FloJo’s joyously long and curly hair or the way she made it OK to be womanly and athletic.

Mostly, Joyner-Kersee says, she will be thinking about FloJo the wife and the mother. The mother who couldn’t be on the playground on a sunny day. The wife who won’t be home at night to take care of her husband.

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Joyner-Kersee doesn’t quite know how she will do this Wednesday.

“It’s still so soon,” Joyner-Kersee says, her voice thickening, her throat closing with emotion. “I just don’t know what I’m going to say. This will be very, very hard.”

Since Griffith Joyner died in her sleep last month, Joyner-Kersee has spent most of her time in Mission Viejo with FloJo’s husband and Joyner-Kersee’s brother, Al Joyner, and most of all with FloJo’s daughter, Mary.

It is with great pride that Joyner-Kersee says that ever since she had known FloJo, ever since their days at UCLA when the world seemed filled with nothing but great athletic possibilities, FloJo would talk much more of being a mom then being a track star.

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“She wanted lots of kids,” Joyner-Kersee said. “While I’d be thinking I only wanted one, FloJo would say how she just wanted a bunch. No one can replace FloJo for Mary. What we’re all trying to do now is just show Mary that there is a whole lot of family around who love her.”

The warmth in Joyner-Kersee’s voice dissolves immediately into controlled anger when the subject of the public speculation on whether or not FloJo’s track accomplishments were helped along by performance-enhancing drugs is mentioned.

For those who said that the autopsy report, which showed FloJo’s death was caused by a seizure and that there was no evidence of usage of performance-enhancing drugs, was some sort of vindication, Joyner-Kersee has no use.

“This is something I don’t want to talk about,” Joyner-Kersee says.

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But then she continues.

“To say that Florence was vindicated by the autopsy, that just makes me so angry. Because that says that Florence had to die to be vindicated for something that she never did. And that is just wrong. It is so wrong. How can that be, that she would have to die so that something could be proved untrue that was never true? I don’t know how people could look for answers in her death. I’ve never felt what was printed was the truth.”

When Joyner-Kersee stands up Wednesday to speak about FloJo, she says, she will be thinking about many other things.

“I’ll be thinking about how Florence always wanted Mary to have strong women in her life,” Joyner-Kersee said. “I’ll be thinking about the things that Florence has already instilled in Mary, a special strength that I think she has given her.

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“I’ll be thinking about how so many other people have been great parents, great grandparents and never get any headlines for that, or appreciation for that, and how Florence always thought that was the most important thing, to be a great parent.”

There was a pause and then Joyner-Kersee spoke one last time.

“But I truly don’t know how I’ll get through this. It will be hard.”


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